Mentorship in-house crucial in light of ‘limited’ preparation at university
At the end of law school, Karina Veling was intrigued by the prospect of a more varied legal role, as opposed to operating in defined practice areas. She now thinks that universities must do more to prepare students for life in-house.
Looking back, Ms Veling – who works as legal counsel in the technology space – said she didn’t fully appreciate what it meant to work in the corporate counsel space, but that in a “very competitive law firm space, I was lucky that a graduate in-house role was available”.
“I was intrigued by what was positioned as a varied role rather than a traditional law firm position in a defined practice area,” she recounted.
It was challenging, however, to come straight from university and be thrown in the deep end, she mused.
“It was a huge learning curve and something I’ll be forever grateful for. I came out of law school thinking my role was to advise on what the law says – and that’s it. An in-house role turns this on its head and is very much about applying a commercial and solutions-focused mindset to law,” she explained.
“[But] whilst the overriding legal training and theory was essential, law school didn’t prepare me for the type of work and challenges I’d face. There’s lots to be done in this space.”
On this latter point, Ms Veling posited that the role of a lawyer is “changing so much”, and law schools need to move with this.
“Whilst I’d love to see an entire ‘Legal Counsel Law Degree’, a specific in-house elective to introduce students to the idea is essential (and definitely would have helped me),” she said.
“A practical approach is key, aiming to help students develop a commercial mindset to legal issues. At the very least, such commercial approach can be introduced to each of the Priestley 11 – once I’ve learnt the basic elements of a contract, teach me how to negotiate that with a specific business outcome in mind (and not just a ‘legal win’).”
In lieu of such an educational grounding, Ms Veling said she wouldn’t have gotten to where she is today without the “dedicated” manager and mentor she had in the early days of her career.
“Due to limited in-house skills at university, I was learning everything on the go and was lucky to have a very experienced general counsel showing me the ropes,” she said.
“Having someone dedicate their time to assist your in-house development at an early stage allows young lawyers to understand the importance of the in-house lawyer, and really engage with a business to achieve better outcomes.”
But law schools – and the students who attend them – must do more to step up so that lawyers moving in-house can be productive and successful, she surmised.
“We can’t undermine the skills a graduate or young lawyer can learn in-house, allowing them to bring unique abilities to any role, whether internally or with a firm,” Ms Veling concluded.
“A commercial mindset, focusing on solutions, is what all clients are looking for. In a nutshell, this is exactly what great in-house lawyers do best.”